The Workshop Debate on the A to Z Challenge at The Road We've Shared

One of the biggest debates in our community focuses on what we call “sheltered workshops.” Today we’ll talk about the pro’s and con’s and what the future may look like.



We’ll start with the opinions heard most – those against sheltered workshops. There is a movement aimed at doing away with “sheltered” employment in favor of “integrated” employment which provides those with disabilities more time and access to the community.  On July 22, 2014, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (P.L. 113-128), also known as WIOA, was signed into law. This piece of federal legislation lays out rules for job training programs and addresses the issue of sub-minimum wages that are often used in “sheltered” settings. For a more detailed explanation of WIOA, see the Arc publication: WIOA: What it means for people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities (I/DD)

.The main reasons given for moving away from the sheltered workshop model are: 1) people with disabilities deserve to be included in their communities, not hidden away in segregated settings, and 2) people with disabilities deserve to make at least the state minimum wage – aimed at reducing the high rate of poverty in the disability community.


Some families, like those in Missouri who were featured in our discussion a couple of weeks ago,  and these in Pennsylvania, have been fighting the closure of programs that their loved ones depend on. They fear what will happen to the workers if the workshops are closed.

“For people who work at the workshop, it is not just a job. It’s a community, a social network. They and their families said without it they would have no place to go, no place to work.” –  Paul Van Osdol (2/9/17)

One study, conducted in Maine (one of the first states to completely eliminate sheltered work settings) seems to support their fears:

“Public Law Chapter 101 succeeded in eliminating work in facility based settings where only people with disabilities worked. However, employment in integrated settings has not increased since its’ passage. In Maine people with IDD are spending more time in non-work activities and when working, work an average week that is the shortest in the nation.”- Transitions: Maine’s Sheltered Workshop Conversion

Yet families who support this system are often vilified by their opposition – they see this individual choice as a threat to  community inclusion of people with disabilities as a whole.

What’s Next?

The saying “necessity is the mother of invention,” seems to apply here. What we need is a compromise that addresses the needs of those on both sides of the issue.

One innovative program that seems to be doing just that was recently reported on by a local North Carolina news program.

The Creative Abundance Model is an approach to providing integrated services by turning the sheltered workshops into the community!

This group helps to train sheltered workshop employees on how to use art as a bridge to the community. It is also a part of a larger organization, ao Strategies, that offers several different options for workshops who are trying to evolve within the new legally mandated disability service model.

Ultimately, change needs to happen and individual choice should be a part of that change.  What happens next will be largely based on how involved members of the disability community are with the process.

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